Not long ago, a European professor who often lectures in the US reminisced to me about how American students have changed. when he visited Harvard and Yale in the 1960s, he told me, the students were all alike: white, male, East Coast. By the 1980s, however, they included blacks, Asians and women. Even the white males were often from Alabama or West Texas.
More to the point, their attitude to life had changed. At one Ivy league college, he told me, an elderly alumnus had left a good deal of mony for a very particular pupose: It was this wsh that, once a month, the college’s students should be served very fine single malt whiskey. But by 1990 or so, there weren’t many students who wanted to stand around, of an evening, drinking single malt, however fine. They were too busy practising the French horn, or doing cutting-edge research, or tutoring underprivileged children. The master of the college no longer knew what to do with the whiskey which, by the terms of the alumnus’s will, still had to be served.
The European professor now feels he knows what happened to those busy, serious-minded students: They graduated, grew up and joined Barack Obama’s administration. “When I look at those people,” he says now, “I feel I know exactly who they are.”
Much has been made of the “elite” pedigrees of the people Obama has been appointing. As the Washington Postreported, his chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, is a former president of Harvard; his budget director went to Princeton and the LSE; his UN ambassador was a Rhodes scholar; and his White House counsel “hit the trifecta: Harvard, Cambridge and Yale Law”.
In total, the Post reckoned that 22 of Obama’s 35 appointments had, at that point, a degree from an Ivy League university, MIT, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Oxford or Cambridge. Since then, Obama has appointed a Harvard alumnus as education secretary, a Nobel-prize winning Stanford physicist as energy secretary, and a handful of Harvard law school classmates.
And yet neither Obama’s cabinet picks, nor the Obamas themselves (Barack went to Columbia and Harvard Law School; Michelle to Princeton and Harvard Law School) look remotely like what we used to think of as the American “elite”. The last administration so dominated by Ivy League graduates was probably that of John F Kennedy, but almost all were white men from the East coast.
The Obama cabinet, by contrast, has at least three Hispanic, five female and two black members; the Obama inner circle is even more ethnically and sociologically diverse. Thus has the transformation of the educational establishment – which my friend the European professor noticed when his students stopped drinking whisky 30 years ago – culminated in the transformation of the political establishment as well. Not everyone is pleased.
Writing in the Weekly Standard, one conservative commentator, Joseph Epstein, pointed out “some of the worst people in the United States have gone to the Harvard or Yale law schools”. Instead of drinking whisky and pondering higher questions, they became “clever, sometimes brilliant, but rarely deep young men and women who, joining furious drive to burning if ultimately empty ambition, will do anything to get ahead”.
Writing in the New York Times, a liberal commentator, Frank Rich, made almost the same point. Quoting from David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest – the classic, scathing indictment of the people who led America into the Vietnam fiasco – Rich wrote that that era’s political elite demonstrated “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience”.
And yet – to me, these criticisms feel somewhat out of date. No doubt more than one Obama appointee will turn out to be a callow careerist or ambitious jerk. But there is something new and different about the range of personal and family experiences these modern meritocrats bring to their jobs. Steven Chu, for example, Nobel prize-winning energy secretary-designate, quoted Faulkner and spoke about the immortality of the soul when accepting the job. The president-elect himself has composed a very literary autobiography, which pondered, among other things, the significance of race and the complex relations between first-world and third-world relatives.
Besides, we need not exaggerate their influence: it’s not as if the meritocrats are yet running the world – or even the US government. In the past two weeks, we’ve also learned that when the occupants of Senate seats leave their jobs, the most qualified person does not get appointed temporarily to take their place. Obama’s Illinois seat was, apparently, for sale; Hillary Clinton’s New York seat may well go to Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter, who has belatedly decided to enter the family business. Even in Obama’s Washington, money and surnames matter. Looking at his administration, it’s rather a relief to be reminded that they don’t matter all the time.